The Life & Death of a Modern Day Samurai
By Michael Schiavello
HDNET commentator Michael Schiavello explores the extraordinary career and tragic death of K-1 superstar, Andy Hug.
If any one K-1 fighter in history was deemed to possess the samurai spirit it was the late Andy Hug who’s famed axe kick, sublime strength, superb technique and ability to win the K-1 World Grand Prix as a ‘smaller’ fighter (180cm, 98kg) earned him the deep respect of fans and the even deeper respect of his opponents.
Said Kancho Ishii in explanation of Hug’s unparalleled popularity among the Japanese: “The reason why the people in Japan like Andy so much is because he owns something that the Japanese respects: a big heart, generosity, strength and a will of iron.”
I had the opportunity to interview Andy in 1996 but never got to see him fight in person. Sadly in 2000 he passed away from acute promyelocytic leukemia, the chance of contracting which is ten thousand to one. At Tokyo Hospital at 6.21PM JST on August 24 2000, Andy Hug became that one. And by 8.00PM JST the news of Hug’s death led every news report on Japanese and Swiss television and radio.
The following morning’s newspapers carried the tragic headlines, and internet message boards gave medium to the thoughts of not only kickboxing fans but also sports fans worldwide that cried at their keyboards when they read the news.
Andy Hug dead? Someone please tell me this is a joke! And the bastard who is spreading it deserves to be shot.
But it wasn’t a joke. There were no bastards responsible for Hug’s death. Only fate and the god Hug so believed in.
What endeared Hug was the way he kept fighting so honestly, year after year. And the way he stared down the odds and proved wrong those critics who once said he was too old, too short and couldn’t box when he first laced up kickboxing gloves at 29 after winning the Karate World Cup – the pinnacle of his full contact Karate career in Kyokushin then SeidoKai.
Three years later when Hug ran the gauntlet of the K-1 Grand Prix and defeated in one night three opponents who outreached and outweighed him, he was finally paid his dues. The kid from Zurich once mocked by schoolmates for his lack of muscle, had become the king of the combat world.
Hug had become the highest paid martial arts fighter in history. He was the smiling, articulate embodiment of success and sophistication in a profession all too quickly dismissed as a bloodsport. Even more than that Hug was a hero – humble and hardworking – and that’s why the fans were drawn to him in droves.
In Japan he was a demi-god. He appeared on television talk shows infallibly dressed. His serious Swiss demeanor and killer looks disguised the killer legs that rested beneath his designer pants. Legs made for destruction. For breaking ribs and cracking collarbones. He had a seemingly elasticized hamstring that allowed him to perfect the aptly (and sickeningly) named axe kick that he used to pulverizing effect, but not to predictability. Just when his opponents thought they knew all the answers, Hug changed the questions and his legs produced a new trick, like the spinning back kick to the thigh that stopped Mike Bernardo in the second round of the 1996 K-1 Grand Prix final.
After that every kickboxer in the world was throwing spinning back kicks to the thigh.
That’s not to say that those legs always led Hug to victory. His fight record was impressive yet far from perfect, winning 37 of 47 contests, 22 by knockout. But within that record are chapters of pugilistic history that will never be forgotten.
His third kickboxing fight was against Croatian legend Branko Cikatic at a time when Cikatic was at the height of his powers as K-1 world champion. In the end there was blood all over the canvas: Hug’s nose was broken and Cikatic’s face a bloodied mess. Hug’s hand was raised in victory and a new era in the sport was born.
Hug’s lack of boxing skills (full contact Karate competition does not permit punches to the head, so Karate exponents traditionally lack competent boxing skills) and ring savvy saw him dropped three times in the opening twenty seconds of his K-1 elimination fight against USA’s Patrick Smith in early 1994. Though Hug was never in serious trouble and jumped to his feet after each down, the referee stopped the fight on the three knockdown rule.
Hug swore revenge.
He enlisted the services of boxing trainer Uwe Ulman and on September 18 1994 claimed his revenge with a savage knee knockout to Smith’s head that stopped the American midway through the opening round.
After failures in 1994 and 1995, Hug qualified for his first K-1 World Grand Prix in 1996 and set about creating history. He knocked out South Africa’s Vander Merwe with a left hook only forty seconds into the first round of the quarter final; defeated Ernesto Hoost by decision after two extensions in the semi final; and knocked out Mike Bernardo with a famous spinning back kick to the thigh in the second round of the final.
“Everybody used to say I was a good Karate fighter but I wouldn’t have a chance as a kickboxer,” Hug told me. “They said I was too old, too small, too light. I wanted to show everybody that I could do it. Winning that tournament was the most important thing in my life.”
There would be other victories too over such names as Australia’s Stan Longinidis (second round knockout 1996), Holland’s Peter Aerts (first round knockout 1998), USA’s Maurice Smith (five round decision 1999) and Mirko Filipovic (five round decision 2000) but none would ever – could ever – eclipse Hug’s K-1 World Grand Prix victory of 1996.
It was fitting that his last fight on June 3 2000 took place in his home country of Switzerland where Hug’s fights once drew a larger television audience than the tennis matches of Martina Hingis and the games of the Swiss national football team. And it was fitting that Hug won the fight against Nobu Hayashi by way of a straight left hand knockout in the first round, considering that the greatest criticism of his kickboxing career had always been his boxing shortcomings. (it is a terrible irony that later, Nobu Hayashi would also enter a battle with acute leukemia).
In the ensuing months Hug engaged in two other fights of far greater significance than any in the ring. In July 2000 he divorced his wife Ilona and at the beginning of August learned that he was suffering leukemia. But Hug wasn’t prepared to let the disease get the better of him. He posted the following message on the internet for his fans with the view that he would beat the disease and prove yet again that anything is possible:
Dear fans, I think that you will be shocked when you will hear what state of health I am in. When the doctor told me about it, it was an enormous shock even for myself.
But I want to inform you about my state of health so that I can fight together with you against the illness. This illness is the most severe opponent of all my fights. But I will win. As if I would stand in the ring I will get power from your cheers and beat this strong opponent. Unfortunately I will not be able to fight at the tournament in October. I will fight against this illness in Japan and one day I will appear again with you. Let’s keep it up.
At the beginning of August 2000 Hug suffered more than 39 attacks of high fever as leukemia began to ravage his body. On August 15 his Swiss personal physician found a swollen tumor on the left side of Hug’s neck and declared it malignant. On August 19 in Tokyo, Hug was rushed to hospital after suffering more feverish attacks.
The doctors diagnosed leukemia and began chemotherapy immediately. They also warned Hug that due to the heart and circulation problems he had suffered for a while, the chemotherapy treatment might in fact adversely affect his condition.
The doctors’ warnings proved true when, after starting chemotherapy, Hug suffered hemorrhaging of the brain and inflammation of the lungs (pneumonia) combined with extreme fever. His body showed all the signs of acute leukemia: purple spots, digestion pipe bleeding, eyeball bleeding, urinary tract bleeding and genitals bleeding.
On August 22, Kancho Ishii visited Hug at Tokyo Hospital.
“I’ll try to fight it out. But if I die, I want to die in Japan,” Hug said.
“Don’t think foolish things,” Kancho Ishii responded. “You must win and come back to the ring. If it is one or two years, I will be waiting for you.”
Hug looked up at Ishii, as best he could with bloodied eyes, and said, “I love you Kancho”.
On August 23 Hug fell into a coma and was placed on a life support system. While in the coma his heart stopped twice – but Hug fought through. When his heart stopped a third time, on August 24, there was no coming back.
Hug couldn’t beat God’s own three knockdown rule.
Peter Aerts, one of Hug’s closest friends and toughest rivals on the K-1 circuit, rushed to Tokyo hospital upon hearing of Hug’s sickness but was too late. By the time he arrived Hug was dead. Aerts, a three time K-1 World Grand Prix winner, and once labeled the most dangerous man alive, broke down and cried.
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